The Long and Winding Road: “Unified” Communications

For many companies (most, depending who you talk to), the convergence of voice and data onto the same network is already done. Digital PBXs have, for the most part, replaced traditional analog ones. Email, voicemail, ordinary cell phones and smart phones, WiFi, the Internet, ultra-light laptops, Web 2.0, etc., etc. have all combined to raise the bar on what users expect and what IT is expected to deliver.

Now, many companies are looking at taking the next step by deploying unified communication (UC) technologies from the likes of Cisco and Microsoft. But, like VoIP before it, UC’s promise has far outpaced the technology’s ability to deliver.

Early adopters, like most early adopters, ran into problems because most of the “convergence” happened at the end user level. This meant a lot of high hopes dashed on the rocky shore of some help desk somewhere as users struggled to make sense of things.

“Historically, the user experience has suffered and the poor user experience hasn’t been worth the complexity on the back end,” said Cisco’s Chris Thompson, senior director of Solutions Marketing for Cisco Unified Communications. “Either we pushed this system integration out to the user or it made it really difficult on the back end.”

On to Today

Fast forward some ten years or so, and UC providers are now focusing on the back end to make things work. On the downside, it doesn’t sound like UC is much easier. On the upside, at least the problem is now in the hands of people with time and ability to do something about it. Even so, “There’s all sorts of hic-ups and gottchas,” said Larry Burton, senior analyst for Network management at Enterprise Management Associates.

Even vendors agree. UC is not plug-‘n-play. This is an “eyes open” project.

“I wouldn’t say from an administrative side, ease-of-use, but from the end user perspective, it’s becoming a lot easier today for those end users to take advantage of a lot of the business tools that the business groups are trying to put in their hands,” said Jim Koniecki, IC Solutions Manager, Dimension Data North America, a $3.8 billion specialist IT solutions provider and Cisco UC partner. “From the business side there’s certainly tons of complexities.”

From the IT side, as well. You really have to go into a UC deployment with your eyes open. Burton Group VP and Service Director Michael Disabato recommends using the IT Infrastructure Library as your best practices guide to any UC install. In other words, if you want to do UC you better get your house in order first.

There are legacy application compatibility issues, people issues, expectation issues, culture issues, architecture issues, integration issues, migration issues, cost issues, and, strangely enough, mobility issues, to deal with and most of this work has to happen on the front end of the install or your dead.

Most traditional UC installs are strictly inside the firewall ordeals, said Thompson. Most of the people he meets with to talk about UC are “ … moving from what we call the business transformation phase to the inclusion phase where they’re trying to figure out how to extend it outside of their corporation network. Most traditional UC deployments, the functionality set, you can’t take beyond the corporate firewall.”

This mobility issues is particularly perplexing since that is what may people see UC as all about. Take mobile phones for example. If you don’t have a dual mode smart phone that can handle GSM and 802.11, you won’t be able to benefit, at least on the road, from the corporate UC initiative. But, on the bright side, said Thompson, “If you have a smart phone odds are good its dual mode.”

Once you go out of the U.S., said EMA’s Burton, however, all bets are off because the rest of the world uses different cell phone protocols on their networks. If you have such a phone, however, you might be in luck because in Japan and Europe, for example, you can do a lot more on your Blackberry than you can here.

Then there are the proprietary issues, said Burton: “If you lined up three UC configurations, there’s going to be different components all the way through. The only piece that seems to be a hub or an anchor point in any of these deployments is a copy of Microsoft Exchange sitting that core.”